'Dr Dan Explains Gentrification'

Dr Dan Explains Gentrification

In a recent piece in the Irish Independent (which is a reprint of part of the latest Daft.ie house price report), Ronan Lyons outlines what he refers to as ‘accidental gentrification’. This is brought up via a wider discussion of the housing market in Dublin as follows:

“What is clear is the different trend emerging between the cheapest and dearest areas. The strongest price growth is currently in previously unfashionable postcodes – the market’s judgment, not mine!

The link between incomes and house prices has forced people to reconsider some of their implicit assumptions about where to look when buying a home – leading to what might be termed ‘accidental gentrification’.”

The point is not to question whether or not gentrification is happening, and, as I will discuss later, I agree that it poses considerable challenges for the social reconfiguration of Dublin. However, invoking a notion of ‘accidental gentrification’ is not just a throw-away catch phrase, but encapsulates a highly questionable attitude to the dynamics of housing and urban change. One of the predominant dangers of the notion of ‘accidental gentrification’ is that it makes it seem as though it is an unstoppable force that has no discernible cause bar the ‘market’. Instead, the market is made out to have its own agency in making judgements about place. This perspective builds upon much of the current representation of gentrification within media discourse as though almost a natural force. Indeed, in this highly mediated world, gentrification has increasingly been put across as a form of saviour from ‘blight’ and ‘decay’, which are also outlined as inevitable parts of urban change. The notions that both urban decline and renewal operate in a form of power vacuum have been central to critiques of gentrification over the last forty years or so. Furthermore, there is, as Tom Slater has pointed out, nothing ‘natural’ about gentrification. Much of the literature on the topic has demonstrated how gentrification is symbolic of the inherent unevenness of contemporary capitalist cities and how this becomes represented through numerous factors such as rounds of disinvestment and investment, social class, and questions of ‘taste’.

In evoking a notion of a ‘accidental gentrification’, Lyons seems to be attempting to differentiate between different degrees of desire to live within a particular area. However, there is nothing accidental about this and the relationship between gentrification and notions of choice and compromise have formed a central feature of gentrification debates over the last number of decades. Indeed, perhaps the most lucid examination of the compromises of gentrification is the work of Sharon Zukin. In particular, Zukin has outlined the relationship between culture and capital in the urban core as a form of ‘historic compromise’. In making compromises, different groups have, to different levels of success, drawn on their own resourcefulness, such as lobbying, to promote their own social agenda in a particular locale.

While there may well be different levels of perceived desire to move to an urban locale, decision making needs to be considered in the context of wider processes and how they play out in different contexts. Not least in this is affordability and access to capital, factors that are by no means an accident. The combination of these factors may vary, but are of key importance in understanding gentrification. It could be the ‘artist pioneer’ in search of a new ‘frontier’ and cheaper rent, the, by now, almost cliched notion of the tech worker seeking the new fashionable location, or, the movement of the middle class to less well off parts of the suburbs. This is not even to mention the role of property agents, investors and banks. If the, at times highly charged, debates about gentrification over the last fifty years have thought us anything it is the myriad of actors and forces involved in urban change.

To declare any form of gentrification as a type of accident is not only highly reductionist, but it is severely misleading about the realities of urban transformation. It is as though the areas in question are a form of black hole into which house buyers involuntarily fall. This goes way beyond the rather problematic notions of gentrification as a ‘natural force’ and ventures into the realms of gentrification as a form of mystical activity that just happens. When taken to its logical conclusion, it could almost seem as though all housing choice is some form of accident.

Where I agree with Lyons is the potential danger that central parts of the city could be turned into an enclave for the rich. However, the means by which to address such a possibility will not be solved by the reduction of land-use standards and other measures that are entangled in speculative land markets. As is the usual with such an approach, it seeks market-bases solutions for a market-based problem. Not only is this not likely to be a solution to the issue, but it may reinforce it. Indeed, the notion that a more market friendly approach to the delivery of housing will produce housing for the less well off in society is highly questionable. Frank McDonald’s article on ‘designer shoebox living’ is a case in point.

As I have argued before elsewhere, we need alternative approaches to urban transformation. A deeper engagement with gentrification theory teaches us is the inherent unevenness of capitalist urbanization and how this is played out within housing. If we at least become aware of this, we might be able to conceive of new ways of dealing with it.

Philip Lawton